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Tragedy of Bengal politics: A history of political violence

Tragedy of Bengal politics: A history of political violence
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By KV Prasad  Mar 22, 2021 11:45:21 AM IST (Updated)

For the time being, take a look at the phenomena of violence and polls in the state famed for its cultured, educated gentry, connoisseurs of fine arts with refined tastes fondly identified as "Bhadralok".

One of the most telling political lampoons on the current state of politics in West Bengal appeared in a prominent daily. It was of a person draped in a simple-looking saree, with the left foot in cast and on a football with the tag line reading : "Khela Hobe" (game is on). It left little for people to imagine.

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The delineation was unmistakably that of state Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee after her March 10 injury and promising a Battle Royale in West Bengal's polls equating it to the state’s passion, a game of football.
The cartoon succinctly encapsulated many facets of upcoming elections to the West Bengal Assembly in which starting March 27, over seven crore electorate in the state is scheduled to vote over five weeks for a new government.
It put the spotlight on three major factors in the eight-phase polling due to end on April 29 – the centrality of Trinamool Congress (TMC) and its leader Mamata Banerjee; the stiff battle the decade-old Trinamool Congress government is encountering from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Left plus Congress formation; and, an inextricable link between violence and politics in the state.
Notwithstanding, trading of political charges between the TMC and the BJP blaming the other for the Nandigram incident, the image of Mamata Banerjee embarking on a wheelchair to campaign with an injured leg in bandage conveys a strong message.
What kind of effect would the incident have on the electorate? Would it benefit the TMC and its leader to build a narrative of a lone woman waging a spirited contest against a phalanx of national leaders, her challengers are fielding? On the other hand, has the political landscape altered for people to wave it away with scepticism around election time?
Answers for these should be available when the election results are out on May 2. For the time being, take a look at the phenomena of violence and polls in the state famed for its cultured, educated gentry, connoisseurs of fine arts with refined tastes fondly identified as "Bhadralok".
"The tragedy of Bengal politics is different from the rest of the country. The Bengal famine, Calcutta (now Kolkata) suffering during the World War II, effect of the partition of Bengal, food crisis, Naxalites movement...all these form a different background," Professor Subroto Mukherjee, former head of the political science department, University of Delhi South Campus surmises.
In his opinion, dwindling presence of industries, lack of employment added to the pressure as did the political patronage to its cadres who organised themselves in various forms to serve the party and the people resulting in an alternate mechanism outside the state-driven structures. Rent seeking in sort.
From early days, political parties when in office or out of it, the Congress, the Left parties and the Trinamool Congress took a leaf out from other resorting to violent and brutal tactics against their opponents. Denial of political space to an opponent or an act of self-defence, the argument cuts both ways.
Some trace roots of the acceptance of political violence to the rise of Naxalites, a movement that began in Naxalbari over disagreement with the Communist Parties policies and programmes.
People recall how earlier, a One Paise raise in tram fare resulted in public fury manifesting into burning of carriages and vandalising public property of this popular mass transport system that still is a lifeline for people in parts of Kolkata.
Take the case of the Congress in the early 1970s when the food situation in the state and the country was in a crisis and West Bengal governed by Chief Minister Siddhartha Shankar Ray, supported by the CPI from the outside. The running political tussle with the Communist Party of India (Marxist) made its leader Jyoti Basu charge Ray for attacks against his party workers and Naxalites.
"Basu also discovered that while he was away , Siddhartha Shankar Ray had carried on a well-organised regime of oppression against the CPI (M) workers and the Naxalites. It was Siddhartha," says Basu without any reservation, 'who was responsible for the planned put-down of the Naxalites. He got away with it because he had central support...It was politics of violence that was enforced and Siddhartha was its executor," Surabhi Banerjee notes in the book "Jyoti Basu: The Authorised Biography".
The Left regime that assumed office in 1977 promised to eschew politics of vindictiveness, began by releasing Naxalites from captivity and withdrawing cases against political workers across the spectrum, yet over the years cadres of Left parties continued with aggression.
Attributing this trait to the inability of the leadership to exercise control over the growth of syndicates, Prof. Mukherjee says instead of party workers getting a piece of work in designated areas, the plan to keep workers engaged turned into access control for routine commercial activities. The flipside was that otherwise unemployed political workforce resorted to other methods bordering on politics of patronage.
Violence and clashes that turned bloody at times have been recurrent in nature across the decades and political parties. There are any number of instances when political workers staged pitched battles attacking leaders and cadres.
Of course, the Left parties explain some of this development to the programme under Operation Barga, and the policy of land redistribution that was resisted by the landlords with tenants seeking access to such land. "Talk of connection between politics and violence is romanticism. The Left parties had to stand by the rights of the land redistributed..." CPI (M) Polit Bureau member Nilotpal Basu explains.
Before the latest episode of Mamata Banerjee hit the headlines, some three decades ago as a young Congress leader she suffered serious injuries in an attack carried out allegedly by a student’s wing of the party leading the coalition government catapulting her on to the national stage.
Much later during the early part of this century, it was Trinamool Congress opposition and subsequent violent resistance against land acquisition programme of the Left Front government at Singur and Nandigram pitchforked Mamata Banerjee and her party into Writers Building, the seat of state secretariat.
The efforts by the then Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government to attract investment and industry as a means to diversify economic activity for the people away from agriculture came as a cropper.
With the Communist parties, the then Chief Minister explained the move of the state to acquire land for industrialists as a measure to bring in investments in the state surrounded by states in the Northeast who draw benefit from central government financial support and offer attractive terms to set up factories.
Having promised to practice a politics of a different kind, by the time the Panchayat polls were held in 2018 charges of large scale violence and disruption were reported. The number of deaths was said to be over 20 and at several places, there was no contest amid charges by the Opposition that their candidates were being prevented from filing nominations.
Ironically, the governing TMC is today caught in a similar web with problems of unemployment, and lack of industrial development being hammered in by political opponents in general and the BJP in particular. The game is on with PM Narendra Modi and the BJP promising to finish it with a winning goal.
KV Prasad is a senior journalist and has earlier worked with The Hindu and The Tribune. The views expressed are personal.
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